Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Religion and the Conflict of Moralities

Where does God fit in this conflict between the instinctive morality of the micro-cosmos (the family or small group of intimates) and the evolved traditional morality of the macro-cosmos (the extended order of human interactions world wide)? What is the role of Religion?

I am pitching neither a religion nor religion in general. However, we hear politicians as well as private individuals speaking about government doing God's or Christ's work, so the argument can be examined from their point of view - the point of view of those defending their policies with religious allusions.

I know the most about Christianity, so that is what I will address: the role of Liberty, as I am using the term, in relation to Christian teaching. I leave to others the examination of how other religions and their teachings relate to individual liberty.

Jesus preached individual responsibility and a communitarian ethic that seem contradictory but, in my opinion, are not.

A Different Kind of Relationship with the Divine
In Jesus’ time, Judaism was a collective religion: the entire Tribe of Israel would suffer or be saved together, as a tribe, based on how well all Jews followed God’s law. Other Mediterranean religions were mostly national in nature – the gods would favor the nation or punish the nation. The sins of one person harmed everyone’s relationship with the divine.

Christianity is different: individual salvation and individual responsibility, not group or tribe or national salvation with collective responsibility for the salvation of all. Individual blessings and punishments were elements of other religions, but Christianity broke completely from collectivism. Christianity teaches that divine blessings are granted or withheld, divine punishments suffered or escaped depending on how one lived his life, not what another or a group lived.

Of course, a proper Christian life depends on how one treats others. Because this injunction applies to all members of a Christian community the community, as a whole, would act in a Christian way, but it is the individuals who are commanded, not the community as a separate entity.

Jesus told each of us to be kind. He did not say to force others to be kind. Jesus said nothing about coercing others be chaste or heterosexual or tolerant of homosexuality. He said nothing about forcing others to help the poor; He told us individually to do that.

No Command to Coerce Others
Though He laid a heavy burden on His followers, the burden was individual. In the temporal world, Christianity told its followers what they SHOULD do, but not what they MUST do, that is, not what worldly laws should force them to do. Divine law set requirements for salvation, but no worldly requirement that people should be coerced into being saved. Yes, followers must do this and must not do that to be saved, but this “must” is akin to “you must put the key in the lock if you want to open the door”. The Christian “must” is a law of God (or nature, if you will), not intended to be a worldly “must” as in “you must stop at a red light.”

Temporal or worldly musts and must-nots limit human liberty; Christian musts and must-nots do not limit liberty as they are not to be enforced by mortals in this world but by God in the afterlife.

Nowhere in the Gospels, that I can find, does Jesus tell his disciples to force people to visit the sick or to gang together to force the reluctant (under threat of violence) to give to the poor.

Christianity is not Coercive
Therefore, I assert that forcing someone to give to the poor, or taking from someone under threat of violence and using the proceeds to give to the poor (or to give to anyone else) is counter to Christ’s teaching. Christians are expected to obey temporal laws serving worldly purposes but Christians are not commanded to enact temporal laws to serve divine purposes.

Yet politicians calling themselves “Christian” brag about doing Christ’s work as they encourage us to, by majority vote, tax people who don’t want to be taxed to give the money to someone else; or, by majority vote, prohibiting someone from buying liquor on Sunday, or jailing someone for having a lover of the same sex. Nowhere can I find a Christian mandate to restrict the liberty of any human being, yet right-wing and left-wing Christians pride themselves on restricting liberties to prevent others from offending Jesus.

Evident Conflict
Confusion can arise because Jesus told his followers to form a community and, essentially, for that community to operate on the micro-morality of the isolated band or troop: love of others, sharing without regard to ownership, communal action, self-surrender and self-sacrifice for the good of others.

How can Christianity be so strongly communitarian (as has long been recognized) and at the same time so fiercely individualistic, as I claim?

Jesus told his followers, individually, to join the community. He never said that the community should force anyone to join or to live by the community’s internal morality. The community is open to all, but each has the liberty to join, not join, or leave as he or she wishes. The community coerces no one inside or outside the community.

Jesus was a radical proponent of individual liberty. He also was quite clear about the consequences, to the individual, of misusing that liberty – consequences after death, not before.

Don’t Abandon the Micro-Morality
Christianity emphasizes the morality of the micro-order. Besides the religious sense of it, Christianity reminds us not to let the macro-morality crush the micro orders and emphasizes the importance of treating all individuals by the micro-morality whenever possible, and of not losing ourselves in the macro-morality.

Christians tend to reject (at least theoretically) the extended order and its macro-morality, asserting that the whole world and all human interactions should abide by the morality of the micro-cosmos.

But the extended order, the free-market, is what creates the wealth which has gradually reduced poverty, the wealth that enables over six billion of us to live here. How many people would Jesus want us to starve to death when we destroy the macro-order with its non-Christian morality, stopping the wealth-creation that feeds billions?

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